On the morning of October 19, 1864, more than 21,000 Confederate troops descended upon the Union Army of the Shenandoah a few miles south of Winchester, Virginia. It was an early-morning surprise attack meant to throw Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan’s Union Forces off guard. The day before, Sheridan had left for Washington, D.C., for a meeting with General Ulysses S. Grant, entrusting his army of 32,000 to Maj. Gen. Horatio G. Wright, NU Class of 1837.
Sheridan and Wright possessed vastly different leadership styles. Sheridan had earned a reputation for boldness and success in combat with Grant in the western theater along the Mississippi River. Flamboyant and colorful, he fully understood the power of good publicity. Wright, on the other hand, was understated and somewhat shy, but with a reputation of being solid, steadfast, trustworthy, reliable, and workmanlike. He was also highly effective on the battlefield.
The Confederates executed their carefully planned attack at 5:00 a.m., taking several Union units completely by surprise and causing them to desert their camps in confusion and chaos. One exception was the 8th Vermont Infantry Regiment. Like the granite from their home state, the Vermonters stood their ground. Fighting at close range, sometimes hand-to-hand, the courageous Green Mountain boys inspired the units around them, and by nine o’clock the Confederate advance had begun to ebb.
For five long hours, this pivotal battle raged under Wright’s command. A topographic engineer, Wright had a trained eye for identifying key terrain, and he quickly ascertained areas where his confused and panicked troops could rally and reorganize. He established new positions and employed his cavalry to protect his flanks while strategizing a counterattack. Deliberately and without fanfare, Wright guided the Army into recovery.
Sheridan swoops in
During those first five critical hours of battle, Sheridan was en route from Winchester. By ten o’clock, in true Sheridan form, he “rides to the sounds of the guns” along the line of troops near Middletown on his warhorse, Rienzi, waving his plumed hat to build troop confidence. “Sheridan’s Ride” has been immortalized in painting and in verse as the moment when the tide turned at Cedar Creek, but it was Wright who carefully selected terrain for the Union forces to reorganize and consolidate. Wright’s experience as a Norwich-trained engineer paid great dividends that late morning.
By late afternoon, the Rebels were in full retreat down the Valley Pike toward Strasburg. What had been a brilliant and well-executed pre-dawn plan had resulted in utter defeat a mere 12 hours later. The Confederate forces were routed and all of its artillery was confiscated. Casualties were high, with almost 1,900 dead and nearly twice as many missing.
The name Horatio Wright faded into the background of the annals of Cedar Creek, but that may have better suited his self-effacing nature. He is said to have shied away from publicity and preferred not to see his likeness in a newspaper. His true aim was to serve, and he went on to a distinguished military career as the chief of engineers for the Army Corps of Engineers, leading Corps efforts in the building of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Washington Monument.
This article is based on a longer one written by COL Tim Donovan, USA (Ret.) ’62 and published in the Norwich Record. Donovan taught military history at the U.S. Military Academy from 1973 to 1976. From 1988 through 1993 he was a professor of military science at Norwich University, where from 1988 to 1991 he also served as Commandant of Cadets. A co-author of The American Civil War (West Point Military History Series), he now teaches local history for his neighbors in the Shenandoah community near Winchester, Virginia.